TL;DR: Salvage is an ambitious, inventive found-footage horror movie that delivers us straight to the surreal horrors of Mindanao.
To people living outside the Mindanao region, especially those who lived their whole lives in Luzon & have never set foot there, it is a place full of wonder & terror. The beautiful beaches & waterfalls, the gorgeous mosques, & the fascinating mix of Filipino, Moro, & Christian cultures clash with the threat of violence that’s plagued the region; just look at the recent Marawi siege as an example. It’s a place dripping with complexities & contradictions caused by its history of colonialism, terrorism, & neglect & indifference from imperial Manila, that it can be easy to simplify or misunderstand its problems.
Such is the case for the Manila-based TV news team at the center of this excellent Filipino found-footage horror movie. After their team was suspended when their lead reporter (Joel Saracho) caused a scandal by verbally & physically fighting a female politician in Mindanao, they’re sent off to central Mindanao to do a puff piece done in the style of a video diary about a series of killings rumored to be caused by an aswang. No one in the group is interested to cover such a light story, & everyone is in varying stages of boredom & annoyance; especially their lead reporter, who acts snobby & condescends to the locals. When they got lost trying to reach their next destination, a group of men dressed up in military jackets try to abduct them. As they try to escape death, lots of screaming & running ensue, while they continue to record everything unfolding to them as evidence of their suffering.
At first, it unfolds like a well-executed but typical entry into the genre. There are lots of shaky, handheld footage, the video often glitches out, & the audio can get choppy, but none of it is distracting enough that it can be hard to know what’s going on. Everyone in the cast is suited to playing their role, especially Joel Saracho as the impulsive journalist with elitist tendencies. However, it’s more focused on creating a sense of unease from being trapped in an unfamiliar land without exoticizing Mindano; one of the movie’s creepiest scenes has the journalist insultingly asking a boy to hold a piece of white paper in front of a camera while the cameraman fixes the white balance.
It slowly becomes even more surreal & nightmarish as they go deeper through the jungle to escape their captors. But what exactly are chasing them? Is it a rebel group posing as soldiers? Is it a rogue military troop? Is it an order from the military themselves? Does it involve the aswangs somehow? The answer is somewhere in between. What’s clear is we’re seeing the unfiltered beauty, rage, & confusion of Mindanao caused by its complex history, distilled through a camera that sees the stark truths more clearly than the TV news team at its center; to the point that only the audience are privy to footage “seen” by the camera. It’s an ambitious effort, fighting back against the limitations of the format to capture the state of a misrepresented, undervalued region. The news team can edit & manipulate reality – once by asking local authorities to carry a body once again due to the camera’s incorrect white balance – but there’s no way of escaping this truth: They went into the region underestimating it & ignorant of its current state, & there may be no escape from the consequences.